British Sea Power’s music has won them some remarkable admirers – Lou Reed, David Bowie and London’s National Maritime Museum. Indeed, the BSP fanbase now includes Doctor Who, Harry Potter and Sherlock Holmes. Peter Capaldi is a confirmed BSP fan. “A band of stark originality,” he wrote in his foreword for the reissue of the band’s 2003 debut album, The Decline Of British Sea Power. “BSP’s songs bring you the bite of the wind, the fury of the sea, and music that is simply exhilarating.” Daniel Radcliffe has talked in detail about his plan to get a BSP tattoo (featuring the 2002 T-shirt slogan Bravery Already Exists). Benedict Cumberbatch is also an admirer of the band.
British Sea Power have played atop the Great Wall Of China, at the CERN atom-research labs and beside the diplodocus skeleton at London’s Natural History Museum. They’ve played at London’s Czech Embassy and beneath the big astronomical dish at Jodrell Bank. They’ve played on ships at sea, deep inside Cornish slate mines and at the Chelsea Flower Show. The intensity and invention of the band’s shows made them Time Out magazine’s Live Band Of The Year in 2004.
BSP have toured giant American stadiums with old friends The Killers, and have played forests and arenas as specially requested guests of The Flaming Lips, The Strokes and Pulp. But BSP also stage remarkable events in remote Sussex pubs and Lake District village halls, where their own support acts have included birds of prey and The Copper Family, a clan of Sussex folk singers who’ve been going for two centuries.
British Sea Power formed at the close of the 20th century. From the English Lake District came brothers Yan Scott Wilkinson and Neil Hamilton Wilkinson, plus school friend Matthew Wood. Guitarist Martin Noble arrived from West Yorkshire. It was the band’s live performances that defined their early years. When BSP played the 2002 Reading Festival, Rolling Stone indicated that the entirety of the weekend’s bill paled before them: “Fuck this puerile drivel, we’re going to see British Sea Power… British Sea Power rule!” The band's distinctive approach to live shows has included their own micro-festival at the Tan Hill Inn, the most elevated pub in Britain, high up on the North Yorkshire dales. It’s the only place you're likely to see the Arctic Monkeys getting boozed up between husky races and falconry displays. When invited by the late Poet Laureate’s family to play at the John Betjeman Centenary Gala in 2006, BSP performed alongside Ronnie Corbett, Nick Cave and The Prince Of Wales.
BSP’s debut album, The Decline Of British Sea Power, was released in 2003. The album swung boldly from 30-second choral swoons to the 14-minute epic Lately. The latter took in life, death and Scandinavian sea lanes. “Stadium-sized melodies and exquisite songwriting,” said MOJO. The NME was in accord: “Out of this world… a dazzling debut.” The Sunday Times was unequivocal: “The best band in Britain.”
There were concerts from St Petersburg to San Francisco – including tours with the Flaming Lips, Interpol, Pulp and The Killers. In 2005, BSP released their second album, Open Season. Again the press located strength in depth. “A marvellous album,” reported The Guardian, “a triumphant lesson in sweeping toward the mainstream with your imagination and mystery intact.” Rolling Stone: “The first few songs are so jaw-slackeningly great it can take days to get to the album’s highlight, the epic eight-minute medley of Please Stand Up and North Hanging Rock.” In one week BSP made a single with The Wurzels and jammed in concert with German krautrock legends Faust. The latter engagement concluded with an energetic fist fight.
British Sea Power’s third album, Do You Like Rock Music?, was recorded in the Czech Republic, Canada and at Fort Tregantle – a 19th century stronghold high on the Cornish cliffs. The album was released in 2008 and went straight into the top ten of the UK chart. Subject matter included economic migrants from Eastern Europe, the Apocalypse and Slavia Prague Football Club. The album was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize. BSP didn’t win, but victors Elbow added their name to the list of BSP admirers. Frontman Guy Garvey declared that, “Not only do British Sea Power own the best name in history, they’re fucking great.”
By this point, BSP had expanded to a six piece – with the addition of Abi Fry (viola/keyboards) and Phil Sumner (keyboards/cornet/guitar). The sextet recorded their critically acclaimed new soundtrack for the 1934 film Man Of Aran, a largely instrumental score for Robert Flaherty’s classic quasi-documentary. The BSP soundtrack well received. “Stunning... breathtaking,” said Ireland’s Hot Press. “Chimes perfectly with BSP’s fascination with lost ways of life,” said The Independent On Sunday. BSP played their new soundtrack to screenings of the film on a series of islands: Jersey, the Hebrides, a Norwegian islet in the Arctic Circle. The film’s theme of survival-in-the-face-of-the-elements produced similarly emotional responses among wildly different demographics – tearstained Norwegian fishermen in a 14th-century wooden church; a packed mass of ravers at the UK’s Big Chill festival; 2,000 ex-pat Irish at the Perth International Film Festival in Australia.
BSP’s fourth studio album, Valhalla Dancehall, was written and recorded on the Isle Of Skye and in a remote farmhouse in East Sussex. The album has a glorious scope, moving from the windswept 11-minute meditation of Once More Now to the neat electronic pop of Living Is So Easy. The press greeted the an impressive addition to the BSP catalogue. NME: “One of the contenders for album of 2011." The Financial Times: "An idiosyncratic state-of-the-nation address... incandescent." Q magazine: "Divine... Time to laud British Sea Power for attaining greatness strictly on their own terms."
BSP followed Valhalla Dancehall with a much-celebrated soundtrack for the 2012 film From The Sea To The Land Beyond. Directed by Penny Woolcock, this poetic, impressionistic 73-minute documentary was compiled from a century’s worth of maritime footage from around the British Isles. “An exquisite soundtrack... truly extraordinary,” said the critic and author Caitlin Moran. When the film was premiered on BBC television under the regular Storyville banner the transmission was accompanied by a wave of spontaneous ‘must see’ recommendations across Twitter. The result was a viewing figure twice the norm for this slot. “A stunning soundtrack,” said The Sunday Times. “The sweeping music is mesmeric,“ said The Radio Times.
Next came the 2013 album Machineries Of Joy. “Their best record yet,” said Q magazine. “A triumph of sophisticated rock engineering.” The Times wrote in praise of“Irresistible songs driven by an enthusiasm that’s infectious…a coming of age.” The Independent On Sunday said, "It's almost boring: yet another excellent British Sea Power album."
Since then British Sea Power have scored the 2014 feature-length documentary film Happiness, made by French director Thomas Balmès and which won an award for its cinematography when it was premiered at the Sundance Festival. British Sea Power then wrote and recorded the soundtrack for The Greatest Living Englishman, a feature film depicting the life Captain Webb, the first man to swim the English Channel.
In 2015 BSP released Sea Of Brass – an ambitious project where selections from the BSP repertoire were arranged and scored for full brass bands by Peter Wraight. Accompanied by competition-standard brass bands, including the Redbridge Brass Band and the teachers’ union ensemble the NASUWT Riverside Brass Band, BSP took this spectacular to major UK concert venues, including a sold-out night in the main hall at London’s Barbican Centre.
Next, BSP guitarist Noble wrote and recorded the theme music for BT coverage of football’s European Champions League. Imagine his joy as he heard his music accompanying the linguistic innovations of pundit princelings Macca and Scholesy, or soundtracking Bayer Leverkusen tangling with BATE Borisov. BSP viola player / multi-instrumentalist Abi wrote the soundtrack for the BBC Radio 4 play Your Perfect Summer, On Sale Here!
And now, in 2017, comes the band’s first new studio album in four years – Let The Dancers Inherit The Part, a streamlined blast of modernist rock music, but now infused with more pop immediacy than ever before in the band’s history.
Fifteen years on from their first concert British Sea Power continue to make bold, galvanising, idiosyncratic marks on the world. Race horses and massive ocean-going yachts have been named after the band. London’s National Maritime Museum recently opened a new £35m exhibition wing. Visitors are greeted by huge, sculpted quotations from Shakespeare and Coleridge – and a lyric from British Sea Power.